Richard Donner’s 1978 film Superman was ambitious. It had been nearly 25 years since Superman had been on the big screen (in the form of a few low-budget serials), and both technology and society had changed dramatically since the 1950s. George Reeves was long-dead, the nation had recently been at war for over a decade, and the big screen spectacle of Star Wars the year before had whet the world’s appetite for grand scale heroes. Critics and audiences agree that Donner, along with a strong cast, pulled it off with aplomb.
With last night’s debut of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, we thought it would be fun to see what these one-time denizens of Metropolis got up to after their encounter with Superman. Who went on to great things? Who went on to nothing? Who’s still with us, and which actors have we lost? Find out in our list Whatever Happened To The Cast Of Superman?
10. Glenn Ford – Pa Kent
By the time he took on the role of Clark Kent’s adoptive father, Glenn Ford was decades into an illustrious career as both a leading and supporting actor. After hitting the big time in the 1940s Rita Hayworth vehicle Gilda, Ford went on to star in 3:10 To Yuma, Cimarron, Is Paris Burning?, and Ransom!.
After his turn Pa Kent, Ford continued to act for more than a decade. While he was never again in a film of grand scale, he did work with some luminaries. Whether it was with Lynn Redgrave in Beggarman, Thief, or Chuck Connors in Day of the Assassin, or Treat Williams in Final Verdict, Ford continued to give commanding performances, which usually far outplayed the material with which he had to work. Ford died at home at the age of ninety in 2006.
9. Ned Beatty – Otis
A standing need of supervillains throughout comics is a stable of henchmen. From Captain Hook’s Smee to Bond villain Karl Stromberg’s Jaws, no baddie is complete without a dimwit to push around and do the heavywork for him. And in Superman, Lex Luthor had Otis. Otis was bumbling, goofy, and served as comic relief for a film which really didn’t need any but which still benefitted from its progress.
Ned Beatty has been a longtime character actor, probably most famous for his wince-inducing pairing with Burt Reynolds in Deliverance or his Oscar-nominated role for Best Supporting Actor in 1977’s Network. Following his appearance in Metropolis, Beatty continued to act regularly, appearing on Roseanne and Homicide: Life on the Streets as well as in low-budget B-movies such as 1990’s direct-to-video Captain America.
8. Jackie Cooper – Perry White
Serving as the boss as both the awkward and bumbling Clark Kent and the dogged and go-getting Lois Lane could not be a job for the timid. Enter Jackie Collins, who, at the age of eight, received his only Oscar nomination in a lifetime of acting for his role in the 1931 movie Skippy. He played the iconic newspaperman in all four of the Christopher Reeve Superman movies.
Beyond his time acting, which he continued to do for a decade after Superman was released, Cooper was an active Naval Reservist who turned down a promotion to Rear Admiral in 1980 out of fear it would prevent him from directing feature films. The promotion would have made him equal to Air Force Brigadier General Jimmy Stewart as the highest-ranking Hollywood actor to ever wear the uniform, and the directing opportunities never materialized for Cooper, despite his two directing Emmys. Cooper directed for television through the 1980s, including three episodes of the ill-fated series Superboy.
7. Marlon Brando – Jor-El
Marlon Brando was a notoriously difficult actor. Particularly later in his career, Brando would refuse to learn lines, make ridiculous demands of directors and costars, and generally force chaos and terror wherever he went. He also turned in brilliant performance after brilliant performance, earning the legendary status he achieved. While his time in Superman is short, it is pivotal. The interactive hologram clued in Clark Kent to his alien origins, and set him up to be the hero he became.
After Superman, Brando essentially took a decade off from acting, opting instead to sue the makers of the film for $50 million, deciding he had been cheated out of the profits of the film. Later in his life, he resumed his craft, starring in The Island of Dr. Moreau, Don Juan Demarco, and Score. In ill health and ill temper, Brando never performed again as he did at his peak and his later years were marked by tragedy. Brando’s son Christian shot and killed his daughter’s boyfriend in 1990. Christian was convicted of manslaughter and spent five years in prison. Meanwhile, Cheyenne fled to Thailand and not long thereafter committed suicide.
6. Margot Kidder – Lois Lane
One of the true highlights of Superman was the bright, quick-talking interpretation of Lois Lane by Margot Kidder. Kidder’s manic delivery and lust-driven swooning over the Man of Steel served as a perfect foil to Clark Kent’s awkward bumbling. In the scene where Superman takes Lois flying for the first time, Margot steals the show.
Kidder’s personal life, however, has not been quite as charmed. While she worked steadily for the next two decades, Kidder was diagnosed in 1996 with Bipolar Disorder after having been found living on the streets and in someone’s backyard. During this period, she also had a series of very public marriages and breakups, along with a whirlwind of boyfriends, including Superman III co-star Richard Pryor and former Canadian Prime Minister (and father of current Canadian Prime Minister) Pierre Trudeau. She also had a car crash which left her destitute and partially paralyzed. Today, Kidder is treating her mental illness and lives in Montana.
5. Gene Hackman – Lex Luthor
Gene Hackman was already a bankable star when he accepted the role of Lex Luthor, so much so that he wanted to dictate terms to director Donner. Hackman refused to shave his head to play the customarily bald baddie, but also refused to shave his mustache-all the rage in 1977. In order to convince him to do so, Donner made a bargain – if Hackman would shave his nose-neighbor, Donner would do the same. The only difficulty (unbeknownst to Hackman) was that Donner had no mustache. The actor shaved, and Donner pulled off a fake lip-warmer.
Hackman continued to act well into his seventies, bringing range and depth to a variety of roles. He was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor in 1989 for Mississippi Burning, won Best Supporting Actor for Unforgiven in 1993, and won a Golden Globe for Best Actor for The Royal Tenenbaums in 2002. His last movie was the 2004 comedy Welcome to Mooseport. Hackman, now eighty-six, claims to be retired from acting.
4. Susannah York – Lara
While Clark Kent loved his adoptive mother Martha, he first had Lara-his birth mother and protector on Krypton. Lara has a minor but pivotal role in the film, preparing Kal-El for departure to Earth, all the while lamenting the isolation and outsider status her son will suffer as a result of his inherent gifts.
Susannah York, the actor who played Lara, had already been nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? She reprised her role for Superman II, and continued to work in film and television for the next thirty years. She died of cancer at the age of 72 in 2011.
3. Phyllis Thaxter – Ma Kent
Like Brando and Cooper, Thaxter was an established star of the Golden Age of cinema long before being cast as Ma Kent. Starring alongside the likes of Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracy, and Katharine Hepburn, she charmed her way through the celluloid delights of the 1940s and 1950s, later branching out into television. Her credits include virtually every major television series from 1960-1980, and she was featured regularly on Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
After Superman, Thaxter only worked on two more projects: an episode each of American Playhouse and Murder She Wrote. Already retired from acting, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease in 2004. She died at home in 2012 at the age of ninety-two.
2. Terence Stamp – General Zod
One of the finest character actors of our time, Terence Stamp signed on to play the primary antagonist in Superman – General Zod. Zod and his accomplices were co-conspirators against the Kryptonian Council, and were sentenced to The Phantom Zone for their deeds. However, with the destruction of Krypton, they are able to escape, and Zod chooses to take revenge for their imprisonment on the son of Jor-El. Ultimately tricked into giving up his powers, Stamp thrilled audiences with his classic line “Kneel before Zod!”
Since Superman, Stamp has taken on roles large and small, including Red Planet, Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace, and Valkyrie, opposite Tom Cruise. He also took on the role of Zod’s arch-nemesis Jor-El in the television series Smallville. At age seventy-seven, Stamp is still busy acting with three films slated to release in the next year.
1. Christopher Reeve – Clark Kent/Superman
When Clark Kent was cast to play the Man of Steel, he was a virtual unknown. With only a few credits to his name, and with a less-than-muscular build, the producers of the film initially offered the role to Clint Eastwood, James Caan, and Robert Redford. Each passed, and since Reeve had delivered an impressive screen test he was offered the role. In order to fill out the suit, the decidedly Clark Kent-esque Reeve underwent an intense bodybuilding regimen with David Prowse – the man inside the Darth Vader costume in Star Wars. He gained nearly thirty pounds of muscle between pre-production and filming.
Tragically, Reeve became paralyzed from the neck down as the result of a horse riding accident in 1995. Even so, Reeve continued to act, starring in a TV adaptation of Hitchcock’s Rear Window and even returning to the Superman fold with some appearances in Smallville. Reeve died from cardiac arrest after an adverse reaction to an antibiotic in 2004.
While many of these great actors are no longer with us, they left indelible marks on the Superman mythos. What were some of your favorite performances from Superman? Let us know in the comments!
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